Everyone these days seems to have that one friend or family member with an idea for a new start-up food business capitalizing on the recent DIY nature of the food truck, pop-up, and pushcart explosion in the Hub over recent years.
Some of those ideas come to fruition. Others don’t. And by and large, swaying the outcome one way or the other typically comes down to training, industry knowledge, and simply having a place to pull all the aspects together with the intent to not be a flash in the pan, but rather a functioning and sustainable business. And that’s where Jennifer Faigel comes in.
“How do we help people start and grow small businesses, especially started by minority women, immigrants, veterans, and low-income [families]?” says Faigel while talking about the problem that Commonwealth Kitchen has set out to solve. “And create full-time, sustainable, permanent jobs in the community. Fundamentally, it was about thinking what we could do to be a job generator.”
The proof in the non-profit job-creation pudding is more than ample. As co-founder of Commonwealth Kitchen (previously named CropCircle Kitchen until a recent rebranding), Faigel oversees 14 food truck projects and more than 50 culinary businesses working between two kitchens in the sprawling 36,000-square-foot Dorchester warehouse, commissary kitchen, and storage and manufacturing facility that employs almost 150 full- and part-time people, all of which are around 80 percent local minority- or women-owned projects. But after graduating several businesses from different stages of development at the original incubator in Jamaica Plain (see: Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, Clover Food Lab) Faigel realized that the project had legs, and needed a bigger space.
So around 2011-2012, Faigel set eyes on the old Pearl hot dog factory in Dorchester, now home to Commonwealth Kitchen. Another business was vying for the 2-acre real estate space with plans to buy the building, tear it down, and turn it into affordable housing. Until, that is, neighbors cried out for much-needed jobs over housing. Seeing demand and need, and that the complex is essentially a big refrigerator with loading docks and floor drains (read: good bones), it came down to getting the funding for a costly upgrade and overhaul of the space to the tune of 15 million in investment from a variety of sources, including landing a large portion of it via the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Menino administration.
“They saw a job creation thing,” says Faigel. “The job story is the piece that got it for us. Some of grants was all about creating permanent jobs for low-income people. There are nonprofits around [the] country that do incubators on food, but mostly they’re about taking your mom’s recipe or building confidence and selling yourself. Our model is much more about building real businesses and getting you to a scale to hire people, move out of here, graduate, and keep going.”
On average, new businesses come in for a three-to-five-year term (they’ve just graduated two businesses in last few months), and according to Faigel, in 2015 Commonwealth Kitchen will be a 1.3-million-dollar-a-year organization, while only two years ago they capped at about 350k. That jump is due in part to the new influx of businesses using the commissary side of things they opened a year ago.
At present, the commissary side supports product manufacturing and storage for local outfits like Nola’s Fresh Foods Salsa, Alex’s Ugly Sauce, Noodle Lab, and Red Apple Farms (both are part of the new Boston Public Market), and infused tea- and juice-makers Jubilee Juice. Additionally, Mei Mei Street Kitchen—which had no previous relationship with Commonwealth Kitchen—has approached the commissary side to help scale, bottle, and sell its salad dressings and marinades for retail. But all this love for startups, mom-and-pop shops wanting to move on from pushcart empanadas cooked out of their home kitchens, and all the rest doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. There’s a vision here, and those entering the fray need to come ready and serious. And that’s a good thing.
“We won’t let just anyone in,” says Faigel. “We take it very seriously that once you’re in the kitchen, you are here. So [our application] process is about support and advice, but it also weeds people out that aren’t serious about this as a real job.”
She adds: “We don’t waste their time or ours. We want you to be a real business when you leave here.”
COMMONWEALTH KITCHEN. 196 QUINCY ST., DORCHESTER. 617-522-7900. COMMONWEALTHKITCHEN.ORG